A lesson in courage from Ukraine

Nelson Mandela once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
From left to right, Anastasia Pryhoda, Yana Stepanenko, and Kateryna Iorgu have each faced the trials of war head-on.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” 

As a rock climber and war correspondent, the Monitor’s Scott Peterson knows about conquering fear. “When things get difficult,” Scott told me by phone from Kyiv, Ukraine, “it’s important to focus on the job at hand. That doesn’t leave room for fear or doubt.”

Last month, Scott met with three brave girls who were wounded in the Ukraine war. Each exhibits her own kind of resilience and courage. 

Yana Stepanenko, age 11, lost both legs in an airstrike. She struggles with memories of the attack and quietly alternates between despair and hope for her future. Kateryna Iorgu, age 12, lost her mother, and her legs were injured in another Russian bombing. She’s walking now, sometimes with crutches, and resolutely rehabbing. And there’s 15-year-old Anastasia Pryhoda. 

She drove dozens of carloads of wounded or older Ukrainians to safety. But her rescue missions ended abruptly in May after Russian soldiers opened fire on her car, hitting Anastasia four times.

“She was clearly aware of the dangers and risks and yet able to compartmentalize it and focus on the task at hand,” says Scott, noting that she continued driving for several kilometers while wounded. 

As a journalist, Scott says he has to demonstrate courage in bursts. “But most of these girls aren’t leaving the war zone. They’re still living here. I just need to sustain my composure until I leave,” he says.

In late February, many Ukrainians were surprised and inspired by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s open defiance of Russia. His willingness to stay at significant personal risk was also central to the global outpouring of support. “It is breathtaking to witness actual courage. It’s even more breathtaking when that courage is both moral and physical,” wrote conservative American columnist David French on Feb. 27 in The Dispatch. “[Mr. Zelenskyy’s] not just speaking against evil, he’s quite literally standing against evil.”

Today, it’s Ukrainians such as Anastasia who are taking a stand. She tells Scott that she intends to go to the Ukrainian military academy. “I could see her in 10 years leading a company of Ukrainian soldiers. She is a self-starter, assertive, and sharp,” says Scott.

Anastasia’s story reminds me of the Fearless Girl statue on Wall Street, hands on hips, staring down a charging bull. In Anastasia’s case, it’s a charging Russian bear. And she’s not backing down.

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